Sorting out a story on faith

Talmage in his Articles on Faith tells the story of a scientist who “proved to his own satisfaction, by chemical and microscopical tests, that the water supply was infected” with cholera then, in a momentary lapse, drank the infected water and died. The moral of the story is that the unsophisticated masses believed and were spared death by cholera, while the intellectual scientist did not have faith sufficient to protect himself. It’s not quite clear to whom he was alluding historically. The most natural suspects are John Snow, parent of modern epidemiology, who famously associated cholera with contaminated water, or Robert Koch, parent of modern microbiology, who isolated the cholera bacillus. Snow died of a stroke, while Koch died of a heart attack.

Does anyone know the source of this Talmage story? Was he merging a broader morality tale with the history of Snow or Koch?

The story is pp 101-2 of the original edition.


  1. The first time I read that story, I instantly thought that faith had nothing to do with the scientist’s death — just that he got distracted and careless (e.g., an example of Hanlon’s Razor, before I knew it had a name).

  2. Max Von Pettenkofer ingested a gram of cholera culture…but he lived.

  3. I think Elder Talmage was giving an allegory and not relating an actual experience. I doubt Elder Talmage’s readers were in the know of esoteric scientists, but I bet he knew very well that his readers would understand the stereotype of a scientist discounting faith to such a point that he would deny it staring him in the face. The point of that particular section was to prove that you don’t need scientific proof in order to follow a command from God, that you sometimes just have to take things on faith.

  4. In the August 1914 issue of the Improvement Era, Elder Talmage relates a similar story in which he identifies Hamburg as the setting. I would guess that he was referring to Oergel.

    Many of you may remember, that the great city of Hamburg was once smitten with pestilence. The people were dying in such numbers that a regular system of collecting the dead was inaugurated. It was required that at any house in which there lay a corpse a red cloth should be hung out of the window, and the officers making their next rounds would call at that house and carry away the dead to be buried in the common field. A man of science, working in his laboratory, sought the cause of the deadly disease, and he found it. He discovered that by far the greater number of fatalities were limited to a certain district, and that district was supplied with water from the old water-works. The other part of the city obtained its supply of water from a new plant, and was not so sorely smitten, and in the few cases of death occurring in the more favored portion of the city, it was found that the victims had visited the other section and had drunk of the water there. He examined the water chemically, microscopically, and actually saw for himself, through the wonderful lens, the germs of cholera in the water, living organisms, that had caused the destruction of so many human lives. It was no matter of belief with him, it was a matter of actual knowledge, superior to mere belief. He proclaimed the fact that the water was the cause of the pestilence, and warned the people against drinking any but freshly boiled water, the boiling process being effective in destroying the death-dealing germs. Thousands within that city not only believed him, but had faith in him; they boiled the water used in their households, and escaped the pestilence. Others, who had not faith, whatever their state of belief may have been, drank and died. But, mark you, this tragic incident: Complete as was his knowledge, that knowledge of itself could not save him. On one occasion, either through forgetfulness or mistake, or through some other cause not known to us, he, the savior of so many, drank unboiled water, and his body was taken with the rest to the common grave.

  5. I meant to include this link:


  6. That didn’t work. In any event, I intended to include a link to a Google Book search using the terms “Oergel” and “Hamburg.”

  7. Thanks, Justin. That’s the ticket. Of course, it would appear that Oergel was infected in a laboratory experiment in which cholera sprayed from the animal he was using to his mouth.

    Kind of transforms the story, though, doesn’t it? The man is actually a martyr to the cause rather than a man who didn’t have practical faith. He died trying to understand the plague, not because he drank the water.

  8. Elder Talmage seems to conflate Koch and Oergel and overstates Oergel’s role. (I noticed that Oergel is not mentioned in Richard Evans’ book Death in Hamburg.) But then I know very little about Oergel.

  9. Thanks, J. Stapley! A couple of weeks ago I wondered what the name of that guy was and my limited searching wasn’t turning anything up.

  10. Could it be Ignaz Semmelweiss (who is the subject of lots of legends). Only the disease would have been changed to protect the innocent. Semmelweiss dealt with sanitation for doctors delivering babies. There were rumors that he infected himself with bacteria to prove his point, but they’re not true.

  11. Semelweiss is famous for first arguing that it wasn’t good to rush from the cadaver lab performing autopsies right to the bedside of women in labor. Though the actual history is fairly complex, he is widely credited with being the originator of the practice of hand antisepsis among medical personnel (made easier by Lister’s innovations in chemical antisepsis).

    Based on the 1920 book on googlebooks, it seems to me that Talmage did focus on Oergel primarily.

  12. gilgamesh says:

    Perhap’s Talmage preceded Paul H. Dunn in elaborating stories to fit his perspective.

    Doesn’t change the fact that he was an excellent theologian.

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